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Extreme Horse Camping
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Have you ever wanted to get away from crowds and seek solitude in some mysterious faraway place, just you, a partner or two, and your horses? The West still offers places like that, but you must know how to take care of yourself and your horses in these sometimes-hostile environments.

            Lee Raine, her son, Scott, and I completed an 18-day backcountry trip during December 2002 and January 2003 in the Desert National Wildlife Range northwest of Las Vegas, Nev. We camped with two dogs and three horses, 25 miles from the nearest water source. Here I’ll discuss our trip and provide knowledge you can use from our experiences.

Special Needs

Hard-core horse camping requires a few special skills and tools.

First you must have sound, well-shod horses, because you might encounter sharp, abrasive terrain and loose, poor-quality footing. Bring an extra set of horseshoes, nails, a shoeing outfit and know how to fix a loose or lost shoe in case of an emergency.

Suitable mounts must be able to handle rocky terrain and steep country. If they’re not accustomed to mountains and rocks, horses can take up to 3 months’ use in that terrain to become familiar with the conditions.  Horses from low elevations require at least a week to acclimate to the mountains.  Horses should be legged up before you leave.  Build up to riding several miles a day for a week or so before your trip.

Also, hobble training is a must, because vegetation suitable for tying is sparse.


Perhaps one of the most important components of our trip was the water arrangement. The Desert National Wildlife Range offers a few water catchments, but water is scarce and critical to the wildlife, requiring horseback riders to carry their own water.

We transported water for our horses in two 65-gallon plastic barrels, hauled in the horse trailer, and watered the horses with 5-gallon plastic pails.  We refilled our water supply three times during the 18 day period.  This required a round trip of 50 miles to the Corn Creek refuge station where water was available.

To siphon water from the barrels, we dug a hole in the ground large enough to accommodate one pail, and siphoned water from the barrels with a 10-foot piece of garden hose. The below-ground-level pail makes siphoning easier and allows you to tip the barrel and use every last drop of water.

To start the siphon, place the hose almost to the bottom of the water barrel, put the loose end in your mouth, and suck the water until it starts flowing into the pail. The lower you drop the hose toward the 5-gallon pail, the better the siphon works.

            Before you begin a trip of this kind, expose your horses to drinking from pails, because they’re often hesitant about drinking from unfamiliar sources. The same is true for drinking from streams or ponds. Patience is very important; wait until the horses relax and drink. Eliminate distractions while your horses drink; otherwise they could go without water for extended periods of time and become dehydrated, which can lead to colic.

            For our own use, we carried four 5-gallon water jugs that we refilled when we refilled our horse water supply.


We hauled certified, weed-free alfalfa-grass-mix hay (most horses require 25 pounds of hay daily) and several 50-pound sacks of complete-ration horse pellets. We fed two 11-ounce cans of pellets in nosebags on the mornings we rode. The pellet ration contained quite a bit of cracked corn for heat, which was important in the cold weather. Our horses held up quite well with this ration and didn’t loose any obvious weight.

Providing enough water is especially important when feeding this much roughage combined with the concentrated pellet ration and hard riding.

Feeding from nosebags offers several important advantages. The bags reduce waste and are great training aids for exposing green horses to having straps over their heads and behind their ears. Hard-to-bridle horses often overcome the behavioral issue after using nosebags. Be aware that most horses want to drink immediately after eating pellets or grain, so remove the nosebag around water sources, or the horses might try to drink with the bags in place. Nosebags should have breathing holes so that the bag can drain if a horse does get to a water source with the bag still on.

Making Camp

Two of us camped in the tack room of a four-horse aluminum horse trailer and placed our bedroll on the bed platform. The other person slept under an umbrella tent that we also used for cooking and eating. A teepee tent stowed horse rations and extra supplies, and we stored hay on top of the horse trailer to avoid loose horses getting into feed placed on the ground.

We cooked with a propane camp stove, used propane lanterns for light and heat, and propane space heaters warmed the tent while we ate. Allow plenty of ventilation while using lanterns, stoves, and heaters. Never leave them on while you’re sleeping, or if they’re unattended to prevent fires or asphyxiation.

Ice chests, placed on the tent’s north side in the shade, housed our perishable food. We also ate canned goods and cooked stews, etc. in a Dutch oven. We took canned goods and snacks for horseback lunches.


Horse use depended upon what we saw with our binoculars and spotting scopes. Some days we rode hard, on other days we rested the horses. After 2 days of hard riding in rocky terrain, our horses became foot-sore.

You can save your horse’s stamina and soundness if you get off and lead him down steep or rocky slopes instead of riding down. Downhill grades are much harder on a horse than uphill slopes.

Tether Line

We secured our horses to a 100-foot, climbing-rope highline (which offers little stretch) strung between two rock outcroppings. We spaced the tie loops so that one horse couldn’t reach the others while feeding and tied their halter ropes to the loops with bowline knots. You can also use metal rings to tie horses to the highline.

The highline should be at least 6 feet off the ground. Tie the halter leads so that the horses’ heads can just reach the ground. This alleviates the chance of them tangling in the lead ropes while eating.

Tying for the Night

We didn’t tether our horses to the line at night, because there was too much risk for them to get into trouble by being close together. Instead, we tied the horses to Joshua trees close enough in proximity that they could see each other and feel comfortable, but not where they could fight. Certain areas and terrain necessitate the use of tree savers when tying horses. Tree savers are wide straps with round rings attached that can be secured to the tree to prevent damage from a rope.  Lead ropes or tie lines can then be tied into the rings.  Also, be careful that your horse doesn’t paw or damage the root area of a tree.  Horses that are used to being tied do not usually paw much.  Practice tying your horse up at home in a place where the horse is comfortable and can see other horses.  Often they will paw if they cannot see other horses.  If a horse insists on pawing, hobbling is a good solution.

Tying to the trailer is also an option. We chose not to, because two of us slept in the trailer’s tack room, and horses tend to make too much noise during the night to allow sound sleep.

When tying your horse for the night, secure the rope above shoulder height and on a short lead, just where he can hold his head comfortably. If you tie low to the ground or on a long lead rope the horse can step over the rope and become tangled, causing a wreck.

Tying on the Trail

Always remember to secure your horse when you dismount on the trail.

If you stop and tie or hobble up for a while, remember to loosen the cinch a little and give your horse some air. This helps prevent saddle and girth sores that can occur when a saddle is cinched tightly for extended periods of time. However, the equipment should remain secure enough that the saddle won’t roll under the horse’s belly and create a dangerous situation.

Again, make sure you tie the rope above the horse’s shoulder and on a short lead, just where he can hold his head comfortably. The horse doesn’t need to be able to eat while tied during the ride.

Before you remount, check the blanket and pad placement and tighten the cinch.

If a horse breaks loose, he’ll probably head for the horse trailer where you unloaded or back to camp where he’s been fed.  Our horses are all branded, so we have permanent, easily visible identification in case they are lost.  A photo of your horse can also be helpful.


The weather can be extreme in areas such as the Desert National Wildlife Range. We experienced temperatures as low as 16 degrees Fahrenheit at night and up to 70 degrees F in the afternoon.

Dress in layers of clothing, including hat and gloves, starting with a lot of clothes in the morning and removing layers as the day progresses. Head covering is particularly important since 80% of body heat can be lost from an uncovered head.  Goose down, polar fleece, and wool are good fabric choices. Bring one layer of waterproof clothing for stormy days.  Our horses were haired-up, with good winter coats.  If your horse is not used to being out in the elements, you could blanket them at night.  


Desert National Wildlife Range rules require all dogs to be on leashes or chains. Train your dogs to be tied up for extended periods of time if you include them on the trip.

Coyotes were a concern in our camping area, so we kept our dogs inside the horse trailer with appropriate food and water at night and when we were hunting. The cold weather alleviated concerns about overheating and dehydration, but opening windows in the horse section of a trailer can provide ventilation on warm days.


In wild country, there are no defined trails, so you must read the terrain to find the easiest way through. Terrain-reading skills come from experience and riding horses in rough country.

Look for game or cattle trails. Wild game will show you where to go if you read their sign – tracks, droppings, trails, etc. Always pay attention to landmarks to find your way back to camp.

Saddlebag Essentials

Saddlebags are essential for packing items on the trail. Here are a few things to make sure you pack before leaving camp.

Extra clothing
First-aid kit (horse and human)
Fire-starting materials (lighter, matches, candle, etc.)
Canteen with water
Rain gear
Cell phone
Shoes, nails, and hammer Hoof pick

Desert National Wildlife Range

The area Lee Raine, her son, Scott, and I camped covers more than 1.5 million acres (about 2,300 square miles) in southern Nevada. All roads in the Desert National Wildlife Range are primitive, and ordinary passenger vehicles aren’t recommended. The area combines the Mojave Desert’s ecosystem with the Great Basin in a vast dry landscape.

The western portion of the Desert National Wildlife Range contains the Nellis U.S. Air Force Test and Training Range. The Nellis Range area, where we camped, is closed to the public except by special permit during a period over the Christmas and New Year holidays, when military maneuvers are usually suspended. The remainder of the Desert National Wildlife Range is open year-round.

Desert National Wildlife Refuge
            4701 North Torey Pines Drive
            Las Vegas, Nevada 89130


Mike Laughlin 
A version of this article appeared in October 2003 Western Horseman Magazine.



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